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Pet Column: Dogs aren’t wolves

Photo provided by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

Dogs aren’t wolves, pretty simple. Yet, humans often justify raising and feeding dogs as if they are still being guided by their “inner wolf.” This means using methods to establish “pack mentality” as a form of training your dog as if they are in a wolf pack. I’m talking about the alpha theory the media and TV shows have continued to feed us. And why? Because we like to compare how wolves learn and socialize to how dogs learn and socialize.

If being a pack leader is what you were raised to believe, it’s not your fault. Modern media and trainers still teach pack theory to justify their training methods. On top of that, outdated science studies and nature documentaries told us this was true. 

Rudolph Schenkel proposed pack theory and later debunked his own findings. His tampered finding led to a generation of people believing dogs seek out hierarchy with other dogs and among humans. By the time Schenkel debunked his findings, the damage of misinformation had been deeply seeded into how people raised and viewed their dogs.

Schenkel studied and later published his original findings based on a group of wild wolves held captive in a human-made enclosure. All wolves in the study were not blood relatives. Fighting broke out among the group for resources. At some point, the wolves created a pecking order based purely on access to resources in a very unnatural situation. Schenkel suggested packs fight among themselves for the alpha position. 

Schenkel’s findings were taken back after wolves were thoroughly studied in the wild. Wildlife biologist L. David Mech found that fighting did not take place in a pack to establish a social pecking order. He found a pack of wolves is simply one mating pair and their offspring. The rule of a wolf pack is all members do what’s best to ensure survival for their pack. They did not fight among themselves Fights only occur between rival packs.

This means wolf fighting is a last resort only when rival packs cross paths. Even then wolves were more likely to avoid conflict by establishing territory marked out with their urine. 

I want to point out that the first major difference between wolves and dogs is that most dogs seek out friendly relationships with unrelated dogs. Wolves stay away or fight unrelated wolves.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done and many people believe that wolves and dogs fight it out between themselves and their humans to become alpha or dominant. This is simply not true. Dominance is established between two individuals, during a particular moment in time. It does not solidify a ranking order between individuals, merely used to communicate access to resources at any one moment, including during play. 

Let’s be clear here, dominance isn’t established by a fight but rather through body language. For example, a healthy play session between dogs will often switch between dominant and submissive roles. This can change in a matter of seconds when one dog is chasing another dog and then switches rolls and becomes the one being chased. It happens all the time in a healthy play session. 

The next thing to point out is that wolves do not seek out relationships with members of another species, but dogs do. In fact, dogs value their relationship with humans as much if not more than relationships with other dogs. And since a loving home provides plenty of resources, there is never a need to confront a human for access to them. 

When confrontation does happen, the environment (including the people in it) is causing resource insecurity. Think of the old myth—stick your hand in a dog’s bowl as they eat and you’ll likely end up with a dog that resource guards since the dog feels some threat of losing a meal. Resource guarding only becomes physical when the dog is provoked. It’s not trying to climb the social ladder, it’s trying to fulfill a basic need.

The next major difference is how dogs have retained puppy-like features and behaviors throughout their lives. Physically floppy ears and smaller bodies are a sign of puppy-like qualities. Behaviorally, a dog will continue to communicate play throughout adolescence and adulthood. Generally, dogs lack carrying out a kill to obtain a meal. This is why some dogs and other animals can live harmoniously. Dogs often ask for help by begging, whining, and crying, which are all forms of puppy-like communication. These are just some examples of retaining puppy behaviors into adulthood, also known as neoteny.

On a biological level, wolves and dogs are similar yet different. A dog doesn’t need to expel as much energy throughout the day so their body’s caloric needs are much less. Even a dog’s stomach has evolved. Dogs need grains in their diet while wolves do not. This is because, for thousands of years, dogs have been eating our scraps, which include grains.

So how does this affect you, the guardian of a modern canine? Goods and services will use misinformation to manipulate how you buy and how you train. Dog food and treat brands will use “grain-free” to convince you their food is healthier because it’s all animal protein, just like a wolf’s diet you can “feed their inner wolf.” Trainers will use pack theory to convince you to be the alpha of the pack, which might mean using force, pain, and intimidation to train because “that’s what an alpha wolf does.” Both affect a dog’s health negatively. 

This is why finding pet professionals who have a background in the science of dogs is so crucial. Talk to a vet about your dog’s nutritional needs, not fad diets used to market products. Seek out a certified behaviorist or trainer about your dog’s behavior, not some reality TV show. Be an advocate for your dog, they are at the mercy of how you raise them and they are most definitely a dog and not a wolf.

To read part one of this article, click here.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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